Be Willing to Wait

I present a repost of James’ story. His name has been changed to protect him, and he is grown now with kids of his own. We have recently been in touch, which is a blessing all on its own. He works in the Tech Industry and on his own, trains service dogs for traumatized foster children. Not all military children are born into the family. Some come to stay for just a while and leave an imprint of love on our hearts forever.

boy and dog

At 11:42 pm on a Wednesday night I opened the front door to a weary-eyed social worker, a police officer so rigid he looked to be vibrating, and a two, perhaps three-foot tall blanket that may have been light green at some point in its history.  I stepped to the side to allow them entry.  No one moved.  Red, usually attached to my hip, stayed in the doorway in a sit position, but his front paws crept forward until the tip of his black nose nudged the blanket. A tiny hand appeared, touched the top of Red’s head, and then quickly withdrew. The movement snagged a silky frayed edge and the cloth fell away to reveal a mess of brown hair, round blue eyes and a perfect spray of freckles across cheeks and nose. The boy stared straight ahead, jaw set, lips rigid, “I not talk,” he said.

I nearly smiled, but this felt like a test, so I nodded once and said, “Good to know.” I ignored the woman’s raised eyebrows and instead, turned and walked down the hallway, as though welcoming a frightened child and two strangers into my home with five children asleep upstairs and my husband deployed was simply another day in the life.  It wasn’t.  But I had trained for and signed on to be an emergency therapeutic foster parent, and it was far too late at night to admit I might be in over my head.

A piercing, rigid scream coincided with me flipping a switch in the kitchen; the brightness igniting the sound and the child until both dissolved onto the floor, skittered across the tile and came to rest as a steady choking sob in the corner of the room.  I glanced toward the sound of whispers in the hallway, heard the baby cry, heard the upstairs floor creek with footsteps and nearly missed the words from woman to officer, “I thought I mentioned he doesn’t like to be touched.” Still, my focus was on the dog huddling peacefully next to the trembling boy in the corner of my kitchen.  My first thoughts: Who the hell touched him? Then: Dog is fine, boy is breathing, floor is clean.  Really, this is my brain in crisis-mode.

I’m sure I heard God chuckle as I ushered the adult people out of my home with a quiet, thank you.  To my ears I sounded like a crazed Ms. Manners.  I just barely controlled my urge to laugh aloud at their relieved smiles, the promise that the child would be placed in a permanent foster home by the weekend; and the pitifully small paper sack in my hand with the name “James” scrawled in black marker.  It was weep or deal time so I closed the door, found two pillows and a large quilt and settled in for a long night on the kitchen floor.

Until that night I thought I knew what was in the next room, what kids like for dinner, what grass feels like on bare feet.  I was comfortable with the orderly mess I orchestrated each day. It was crazy and hard and joyful and it was mine. Until the night of James — when I discovered that in three years a child can be so badly abused that his small world is reduced to a corner in the kitchen and an old soiled blanket.

On day two, James and I compromised with a makeshift bed upstairs next to Red’s pillow at the end of Aaron’s crib.  He dressed himself, but only while underneath the blanket draped over his head.  He ate with his hands, brushed his teeth and appeared intrigued by the maneuverings of the older children in the house. They spoke to him, answered for him, proclaimed his cuteness and ignored his quirks.  Still, he did not talk.  He paid no attention to Aaron, or so I thought, who, for most of the day remained strapped to my chest in sling. One morning, in the midst of a chaotic (our norm) breakfast, signing papers and packing lunches, James tentatively stepped very close to me and with the edge of his soiled blanket, reached up and wiped a bit of spittle from Aaron’s chin.  For an instant all activity stopped.  A collective deep breath filled the space and then – through the guidance of angels perhaps – we all knew not to react to this tender moment – instead, we resumed chaos as usual.

Baths were out. Since I drew the line at Red and the blanket in the bathtub, our first attempt at bathing ended in shrill screams and a brief regression to his safe place in the corner.   Sheri – in all her eight-year-oldness, cleaned out the plastic baby pool and with Red’s patient cooperation, a bar of soap and a three-year old at the end of a hose, we had a semi-clean boy and a sparkling, if not matted, Golden Retriever  every other day.

James’ two day emergency stay turned into two weeks, four days and three hours – this according to James –and not duly noted until the day I received a phone call notifying me of a permanent home move, to which I responded with a simple, no thanks, he’s already home. The social worker was still speaking when James took my hand (a touch miracle of its own) and pointed with glee to his tiny drawings on the wall in his safe corner.  This was the first smile, the first initiated touch and the first emotion I’d seen from this child.  After some confusion (he still wasn’t speaking) I came to realize that he had drawn meticulously neat small dots to represent hours, circles around exactly 24 dots to represent days and squares around each set of circles to represent weeks.  Also, he was partial to blue crayons, which oddly complimented my yellow flowered wallpaper.

Patience is not one of my virtues.  I tend to set my course and go, obstacles be damned. James, though, elicited a calm in me I cannot to this day explain.  I was content to watch him watch life, soak it in and return to his safe place in the corner as necessary.

Red was my Godsend and as it turns out, James’ confidant.  Shortly after the baby pool baths began – and out of necessity – I showed James how to brush Red’s coat.  Our back deck was about a foot off the ground and built around a large oak tree.  Each day, James would sit on the edge of the deck next to the Oak trunk.  Red would cuddle up to his left side and as the brushing began – a methodical, tender child stroke – James would quietly talk.  Usually, I sat in a glider on the other side of the massive oak rocking Aaron, but James never seemed to notice that there was anyone else in the world except for him and Big Red.  He told Red in vivid detail about his broken arms, his round scars from “retts” (cigarettes), his mommy’s bruised eye, how Man #3 was more mean than Man #2, but wrestled better until he got mad.  How touching meant hurts and talking was trouble and how he thought maybe Man #1 might be his dad who went to Heaven but mommy didn’t tell him for sure.

On the forty-second day of James, a sunny, breezy day, James asked Red if he ever wanted to be a cowboy some day.  I heard hope in the question and I so wished Red could just this time… answer the question with a hearty Yes! I was still smiling to myself when I heard Red’s sigh from the other side of the Oak, heard his nails scratch the deck board as he stood and shook.  James – holding on to Red’s collar – appeared at the side of my chair.  He reached out and patted Aaron’s head, touched my hand and asked, “Could Red and me please have a butter jelly sammich, Mommy Lynn?”

Exactly one year, thirty days and two hours from the first moment we met – and I have the wallpaper saved to prove it — James left our home to live with his natural grandparents in another state.  From letters and phone calls I know that James learned to ride horses – to be a cowboy – and in high school he began to train dogs specifically to work with abused children.

That was the year I learned to listen.  Really listen.  I kept notes – The Journals of James – I wept in the shower each night for the pain this child endured, I testified in court to make sure Man #3 saw the inside of jail cell, I learned to listen to small words, small gestures, tiny movements and night terrors and wait with baited breath for the moment when a simple request for a butter jelly “sammich” rocked my world.

We have to be willing to wait.Big Red

Lynnette Bukowski © 2010

Neptune’s Child ~ Thoughts on Life

In honor of the Month of the Military Child, I present an essay written for a Reader’s Digest Contest in 1991 by our daughter, Sheri Lynn. Children were asked to address their feelings about family values, thoughts on life, what their mom and dad did at work and what they wanted to be when they were grown. Sheri did not win the contest, but she certainly melted our hearts. Steve carried a copy of this with him wherever he went. I found it yellowed and creased in his wallet when his personal items were returned to me the day after he died.  Love Dad

About my Bukowski Family 

By Sheri Lynn Bukowski – Age 7

My mommy can do almost everything except throw a mouse away when it’s on a sticky thing and except when daddy’s home, because then she pretends she can’t do everything so he can.  My daddy knows this secret.

My mommy and daddy probably know as much as God does, but mommy says they don’t because they’re just a mom and dad and we all, even mommies, learn something new every day. Also, we’re not supposed to put people on pedestals because we are all equal.  I don’t know about that because I don’t think anybody is equal to my daddy.  Mommy says pedestals are “thinking” things, and we should all try to be nice and say we’re sorry when we’re not nice. I suppose it’s like when she goes crazy and yells at everybody, even the dogs, and then says, “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

I think a pedestal is a wooden box.  I think it must hurt really bad to fall off so I will never put myself on a pedestal.  My brother says mommy and daddy don’t know anything about nothing.  He’s 10.  I think he should fall off a pedestal.

My mommy tells us we should talk to and listen to people every day if we can because every person and every day is important.  Mommy says this includes my three year old foster brother, even if he is a pain.

My daddy always says, “Never give up!”  And my mommy always says, “How do you know if you don’t try?”  Sometimes I really, really hate my parents because they make me do stupid things like wash my face and wear dresses.  Daddy says it’s okay because he will always love me anyway.  Mommy says it’s not nice to hate but I can not like her if I want.  I hate Philip, the boy who sits next to me at school, but I’m trying not to like him.

My daddy works in the Navy SEAL Team and does things that only special daddies like him can do.  He knows how to jump out of airplanes and shoot loud guns and dive under ships and crab-crawl through jungles and climb rock walls.  When he’s home we crab-crawl through the back yard and climb rocks and jump on the trampoline and he lets me wear green makeup on my cheeks, but mostly he’s gone and he writes us letters.

I think you have to know how to be lonely for your family and to write letters to be a Navy SEAL.  I love my daddy more because I think he needs it.

My mommy used to work at a place writing things for attorneys because attorneys don’t know how to write like she does. We had a nanny from Denmark named Hella, like hello except with an A.  Now mommy stays at home and gets her story money from the mailbox.  She works as a mommy for free because she loves us and because she takes care of us and sick babies and helps mommies and daddies of foster children to know how to love when they have sad hearts or angry feelings.  Mommy says she has enough love and I believe her, so it’s okay that I love daddy a little more since he’s alone a lot.

When I grow up I will probably be a Navy SEAL and a dancer.  I will try to be a nice person and watch out for pedestals.  I will also probably be a gymnastics girl in the Olympics because I’m pretty good so far.

If I win, will you please send this to my daddy.  Mommy knows the address.

Our Family

Sheri Lynn Bukowski © 1991